What Are Spinal Tumors?

The spinal cord is the major information highway that carries messages from the brain to the rest of the body. The spinal cord begins at the base of the brain and extends down the center of the spinal canal in the back. A spinal tumor is a growth near or within the spinal cord or within the bones of the spine.

Spinal tumors may be malignant (cancerous) or benign (non-cancerous). Both are considered serious and are treated by the experts at Roswell Park.

Robert Fenstermaker, MD, Chair, Department of Neurosurgery and Director, Neuro-Oncology Program

"Any patient with a known history of cancer who develops back or neck pain that does not go away should be evaluated promptly for a possible spinal tumor." – Robert Fenstermaker, MD

  • Primary spinal tumors grow from a single point in the spine, developing from cells in the spinal cord, nerve roots, spinal canal coverings or the bones of the spine.
  • Secondary spinal tumors occur when cancer in another body site, such as the breast, lung, prostate, kidney or colon spreads (metastasizes) by way of the bloodstream or lymph channels to the spinal bones. Most cancerous spinal tumors are secondary or metastatic tumors, which can cause back pain and neurological problems as they grow in the vertebrae. About 5 percent of all cancer patients will develop metastatic spinal tumors.
  • Benign tumors are free of malignant cells and unlikely to invade surrounding tissue or spread to distant body sites. However, the word benign is misleading when it concerns spinal tumors. Benign spinal tumors are serious and should be treated in a timely manner to avoid a situation where the tumor pressures the delicate spinal cord nerves, blood vessels and other structures, leading to significant complications such as pain, paralysis, loss of sensation and bladder and bowel dysfunction. Left untreated, benign tumors can destroy other spine structures such as bone and ligaments, leading to an unstable spinal column.


Symptoms of a spinal tumor may include any of the following:

  • Persistent neck or back pain in a patient with known cancer
  • Difficulty walking that increases over time
  • Impaired movement or strength of the arms or legs
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms or legs
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control

Early Detection

The development of widespread screening tests and technology to detect early spinal tumors remains in progress. They often elude early detection because:

  • Spinal tumors cause few symptoms at early stages
  • Spinal tumors occur deep inside the body, out of the reach of simple, noninvasive tests or monitoring technique
  • Pre-emptive technologies do not yet exist

We are dedicated to discovering new methods to detect spinal tumors sooner, through laboratory research, population studies, community outreach, and early use of spinal imaging studies like MRI in patients with known cancer. As part of our mission, we aim to detect and treat spinal tumors before they threaten life and neurologic function.